The First (real) Day

By Ian Isherwood ’00

Our first full day of CWI 2014 began with a hearty breakfast at the college dining hall (Servo). Armies, they say, march on their stomachs (and whatnot), and our army of Civil Warriors received the necessary sustenance of made-to-order omelets and assorted cereals to confront the day’s historiography.

Well-breakfasted, the ballroom was packed full of attendees by 8:30, all carrying their travelers of coffee (or tea) and waiting for CWI Director Peter Carmichael to speak on Robert E. Lee’s elusive search for a battle of annihilation. With C-Span and PCN’s cameras filming, we began.

Carmichael emphasized that commanders in the Civil War made decisions based on many different factors, not all of them represented in the established historiography. A neglected factor by many historians is the culture of sensibility, a prominent part of the worldview of all Americans 150 years ago. Notions of sensibility shaped nineteenth century men like Lee, men who were concerned, at their core, with matters of honor. Lee’s sense of heroic masculinity, argued Carmichael, influenced his command decisions. Carmichael challenged us in a fundamental way: to understand the past we need to immerse ourselves in the way people felt about the choices they were making, and not just on the decisions they made (or didn’t).

Brooks Simpson followed Carmichael speaking on Grant and the problem of Virginia in 1864. Simpson’s lecture, punctuated with quips that caused the ballroom no shortage of guffaws, defined leadership issues facing Union generals in 1864. Grant faced a major hurdle of command due to the factional nature of the Army of the Potomac’s leadership and the stigma of defeat facing the AoP. Unlike so many other commanders, Grant had a spectacular ability to pivot from setbacks and not to be consumed by them. To paraphrase Simpson: when things didn’t go well, Grant looked for new ideas. Simpson explained the way Grant thought in 1864, his talk a splendid balance to Carmichael’s.

Ari Kelman followed Simpson, changing the tone of the morning’s lectures from battles and leadership, to culture and society. Kelman presented on the Sand Creek Massacre and the controversies of this event in historical memory. Much of the talk focused on the way the massacre has been remembered – was it a battle or an atrocity – in historical memory and the way that Americans now commemorate Sand Creek at the national historic site. Of particular note was the way that Kelman reminded audiences that the Civil War came in the midst of a century of American imperial expansion, the bloody conflict a part of a narrative of western expansion that is often overlooked by eastern-centric historians.

After a book signing of truly epic proportions, dubbed MEGA SIGNING, we divided the Army of Civil Warriors into independent commands (concurrent sessions) of three separate corps. As I am not telepathic, I was only able to sit in one session at a time, and rather than review only one third of these sessions (which would not do justice to the other corps commanders), I will list their topics:

  • Brian Craig Miller on John Bell Hood’s Tennessee Campaign in myth and memory
  • Kathryn Shively Meier on the ’64 Valley Campaign and Jubal Early
  • Anne Sarah Rubin on Sherman’s March
  • Kevin Levin on the Battle of the Crater and memory
  • Megan Kate Nelson on the burning of Chambersburg
  • Caroline Janney on Confederate civilians and the siege of Petersburg
  • Catherine Wright on material culture and artifacts from the Museum of the Confederacy.

Check out our twitter feed or the conference hashtag (#cwi2014) for memorable moments from all of these sessions. The one consistent thing I heard from attendees was that they were having a hard time choosing which talks to go to. You probably feel the same way reading the variety of interesting topics. Sources report excellence all around.

Susannah Ural spoke after dinner on Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades, a book which I had the privilege to read (for pleasure) earlier in the year. Ural’s book is a feat of scholarly judgment and narrative. Her talk captured the essence of the book’s impressive focus, which is on the way the war affected not only soldiers, but also their families on the home front. Ural helped to make the war seem what it was – a cataclysmic event felt personally in ways too deep to imagine now, but one in which nineteenth century Americans struggled to understand as their world was upended. It was the perfect end to a day that was academically diverse, informative, and inspirational.

Onto day two . . .

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